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Pinellas Housing Authority opens complex for low-income seniors

Published May 15, 2014

LARGO — When she lost her home in High Point to foreclosure, 67-year-old Dona Stone had to live in her car. It wasn't so bad, she said. Her Mercury Mariner SUV was quite sizable.

"I put a nice down mattress in the back, like a feather bed," the former nurse said. "I'm a tough old bird. You do what you have to do in life. If you don't, you won't survive."

Still, she's beyond pleased to be one of the senior citizens moving into Pinellas Heights, a newly opened 153-unit apartment complex for low-income seniors.

The Pinellas County Housing Authority built the four-story complex next to its headquarters on Ulmerton Road just west of Clearwater-Largo Road. It's already fully leased, with a sizable waiting list to get in.

One thing is for sure about the future of Pinellas County: There will be no shortage of senior citizens on fixed incomes who need housing. Baby boomers are edging into their retirement years, and the mobile home parks that once offered an affordable alternative are disappearing.

"It still blows me away when we find out how many people are in need," said Joe Triolo, chairman of the Housing Authority's board. "We have more and more people on fixed incomes, but it costs more and more to live."

Pinellas Heights has mostly small one-bedroom apartments and 16 two-bedroom units for income-qualified people 62 years and older.

Residents pay rent equal to 30 percent of their income, however much that is. Most are living on Social Security, with a few getting veterans benefits.

There are 21 units for low-income seniors earning below 60 percent of Pinellas' median income; and 132 units for very-low-income seniors, who live on less than 50 percent of the median.

"Affordable housing is our mission," said Debra Johnson, the authority's executive director. "This is land that we owned, and this is the highest and best use of the property."

Pinellas Heights was built on the former site of the Greenhouse Shoppes, a drab and vacant Ulmerton Road shopping strip that the authority bought in 1999 for $1.85 million when it moved its headquarters there from downtown Clearwater.

Funding to build the $24 million complex came from a mix of local, state and federal sources. Norstar Development USA, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based developer, built it in partnership with the Housing Authority.

Each wing has its own elevator, laundry room, and TV lounge with rocking chairs on its porch. There's a library, computer lab and exercise room. The apartments have roll-in showers, big medicine cabinets, and pull cords that summon help in case of an emergency.

"This is like the Taj Mahal," said Nathan Robinson, a 68-year-old who moved here from the Homeless Emergency Project's transitional housing for veterans in Clearwater.

"I've been homeless. You go through so many different phases of life," said the former paratrooper and paralegal. "I'm home now. You couldn't pull me out of here with a bulldozer."

Created in 1965, the Housing Authority is an independent agency that uses public and private funding to provide housing and rental assistance to Pinellas residents. It covers all of Pinellas County except for Clearwater, Dunedin, St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs.

The agency has several other projects brewing:

French Villas: This aging public housing complex in Lealman is being gutted, overhauled with a multimillion-dollar makeover, and renamed the Landings at Cross Bayou.

Veterans complex: A housing complex for veterans is slated for the 13-acre site where Women's Hospital once operated on the western edge of Lake Seminole.

Rainbow Village: Officials are brainstorming ideas for this 30-acre public housing complex in the Ridgecrest area along Walsingham Road.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield on Twitter.

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